For almost 100 years, Griffith Park, the...
For almost 100 years, Griffith Park, the biggest U.S. municipal park to be entirely surrounded by a city, has survived fires, floods, a curse, deathbed skulduggery and Proposition 13.
The park, initially on the wild edge of the city, is now an oasis in the heart of built-up hills. In its mossy dells, legend has it, Cahuenga Indians once held their councils and hunted grizzly bears and other animals with bows and arrows.
This jumble of topography, ranging from emerald lawns to rugged forest, later became part of Rancho de los Feliz, a land grant awarded in 1796 to the corporal who led three soldiers and 44 settlers here in 1781 to found the city of Los Angeles. His name was Jose Vicente Feliz and, as a reward for his services to the crown of Spain, he collected 6,677 acres.
The land remained in the family until 1863, when Antonio Feliz lay dying of smallpox. He had sent Petranilla, his beloved niece and heir, to Downtown Los Angeles--quite a jaunt from the rancho in those days--so she could be safe from the spreading disease.
After she left, Antonio Coronel, a former mayor and school superintendent of Los Angeles, is said to have come skulking along to get the dying old man to sign over all his land to Coronel, cutting Petranilla out of the inheritance.
Petranilla was, to put it mildly, quite angry when she found out about all this. According to the tale published in “On the Old West Coast,” a 1930 book by the great storyteller Horace Bell, she promptly informed Coronel that his life was going to be ruined, that there would be a blight on the land, that all the cattle on the estate would die, that the oak trees would wither and that a flood would virtually wipe out the whole place.
In Bell’s fanciful account, Petranilla died on the spot of grief after delivering her curse. But according to historians, she lived to the age of 92, and Coronel did not really cheat Feliz out of his land, but purchased it later for $1 an acre.
Afraid that the curse might really come to pass, Coronel quickly sold the ranch to Leon Baldwin, a wealthy businessman. Baldwin was said to have invested heavily in the ranch, but it was plagued by misfortune. His cattle died in a drought and his crops were devoured by grasshoppers.
Financially ruined, Baldwin (who would later be murdered) sold the ranch in 1884 to a Welsh immigrant named Griffith Jenkins Griffith. The same year, a flood wiped out all the oak trees--and almost everything else in the park.
Every point of the reputed curse was met.
Twelve years after buying the rancho, Griffith discovered that he was stuck: Nobody would buy the land because of the curse, so he decided to donate his property as a Christmas gift to the city.
To celebrate his gift, Griffith invited city fathers to dine with him on the rancho at the old Feliz adobe. As the festivities continued through the night, an uninvited guest, the ghost of Antonio Feliz, allegedly crashed the party.
The ghost seated himself and said, “Senores, I am Antonio Feliz, come to invite you to dine with me in hell. In your great honor I have brought an escort of subdemons.” As the lights went out and the screeching demons came dancing into the hall, the city fathers all made a mad dash for the door.
Angelenos who heard about Griffith’s encounter with the supernatural would probably have been cheering for the ghost.
Long before Griffith shot his wife in the eye in a notorious case, he was not very popular with the other people in town--one reason he decided to give his land to the city as a way of making amends.
Griffith would make more donations over the years as penance for his misdeeds.
Just after the turn of the century, when Griffith was apparently under the impression that his wife, Christina, was “in league with the Pope and the church to poison him so she could turn all his money over to the Catholics,” he shot her in their Santa Monica hotel room, according to the Griffith Park Quarterly. Griffith Griffith was convicted of the nonfatal shooting, but he was out of jail in a year. Soon afterward, he made other donations of land to enlarge the park and to provide for the Griffith Observatory, although some people raised a fuss over accepting
anything from a man who had shot his wife.
Griffith never could quite overcome his image problems. Even at his death in 1919, he was detested by many.
Sometimes it seemed as if the park could not escape the curses laid upon its owners.
Tragedy continued to strike in the park. During the Depression, about 1,500 public relief workers in the park came rushing to put out a brush fire on Oct. 3, 1933. Some climbed down into the steep Mineral Wells Canyon to fight the blaze, but having little or no firefighting experience, 29 of the workers died when they were engulfed by fire while trying to escape.
For many years afterward the park carried the scars of the blaze, etched in the trunks of the trees.
Floods and fires have raged in the canyons and across the hills of the park, but the 150-year-old adobe, located on Crystal Springs Drive and built by Jose Vicente Feliz’s descendant, Jose Paco Feliz, in 1853, has survived.
The five-room building, with its original open fireplace, has been used over the years by park maintenance employees as an office. The adobe was modified in recent years with a porch addition and new roof tiles. It is being
renovated and will soon be used for additional office space. Although park rangers have never reported seeing a ghost in the adobe, every once in a while a park visitor will claim to have seen the ghost of Antonio Feliz at various points in the park. Others say they can see the face of Petranilla, with a lace mantilla upon her head, on a rocky ledge protruding above a trail.